By Steve Silverman
(CBS) The Chicago Blackhawks did not play anything close to their best in Game 1 of their playoff series with the Minnesota Wild.
The Blackhawks looked rather pedestrian in their 2-1 overtime victory. Certainly Johnny Oduya’s picture-perfect pass to Viktor Stalberg in the extra session was memorable, as was Bryan Bickell’s deft backhander through Wild goalie Josh Harding for the game winner.
But the Blackhawks were basically held in check by the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
They can reasonably expect a much better all-around performance as they attempt to take a 2-0 lead when the series resumes Friday night at the United Center.
A huge burden was lifted with the victory. The Blackhawks are the clear favorites to get to the Stanley Cup Finals from the Western Conference where they appear to be on track with the Pittsburgh Penguins, their opposite number in the Eastern Conference.
But a Presidents Trophy and a memorable regular season will take a team only so far. Any team with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations needs excellent goaltending to get there.
Based on the performance during the regular season, goaltending is not an issue for the Blackhawks. Both Corey Crawford and Ray Emery had 1.94 goals against averages this year and were often stellar, but the state of the goaltending had to worry Stan Bowman and Joel Quenneville going in.
Emery is currently sidelined with the dreaded lower-body injury. Emery didn’t dress in Game 1 and he won’t Friday night, but it is not expected to be a long-term injury. Hopefully.
With Emery out, all of the goaltending burden is on Crawford. He has never been at the level of Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers, Jonathan Quick of the Kings or the strangely absent Tim Thomas.
Crawford’s problem has been playoff hockey. Specifically, it’s overtime in the playoffs that gives him the biggest problem.
In last year’s first-round loss to the Phoenix Coyotes, three of the four losses the Blackhawks suffered came in overtime. Two of those overtime losses came on the first shots that the Coyotes sent Crawford’s way.
They were both bury-your-head-in-your-hands plays. The overtime goals that Crawford allowed were pillow soft.
Crawford knew he should have made the saves on back-to-back overtime winners by Phoenix legend Mikkel Boedker.
When you let in overtime winners, they stay with you. Your coaches and teammates can voice their support and profess confidence, but when you are thrust back in that position again, that’s when you have to prove yourself.
Crawford went a long way towards passing the test against the Wild. Minnesota had several good scoring opportunities in the third period and the overtime, and Crawford stopped all of them.
He made one superior save minutes before Bickell won the game with his sharp move. Minnesota was pressing in the Blackhawks’ zone and the puck found its way to Zach Parise, the team’s best offensive player.
Parise had the puck on his forehand and he was skating through the slot. As he moved to his right, he fired a rocket of a wrister to his left. Crawford extended with his blocker and deflected the shot into the corner.
It was a save that was about 100 times more difficult to make than either of the stinkers he let in a year before against Boedker.
It demonstrated that playoff overtime is not the end of the world for Crawford.
He still has a long way to go if he wants to author a Conn Smythe Trophy winning performance like Thomas and Quick put together the last two years, but he has taken the first step.
The Blackhawks are likely going to get by the Wild without much more trouble the rest of the way. However, Quenneville & Co. now understand that Crawford can make the key save when the game is on the line.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.